John Phillip Law
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
Barbarella March 29, 2015
I suppose my reaction to Barbarella is a simple “What is this shit?,” and whether you love it or you hate it will nonetheless result in you probably saying the same thing. See: Atrocious acting. Unironically kitschy set design. Writing that tries too hard to be tongue-in-cheek (but eventually throws all caution to the wind and just stops trying). Awful special effects. Jane Fonda trying as hard as she can to climb out of the cloyingly psychedelic quicksand only to suffocate.
But like all camp, there’s a point where you have to stop retching in disgust and sit back and absorb the outright shabbiness, to settle down and understand that what you’re watching isn’t going to be Forbidden Planet or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Roger Vadim, the tawdry French director who has been married to Brigitte Bardot and Barbarella star Jane Fonda, aimed for high camp but got low camp, wanting to play it straight at times when everything else seems to be moving in an uncontrollably zigzag motion.
The results are bungled up, but unlike other Z-rate sci-fi romps of the time, the film takes itself seriously when it shouldn’t and laughs at itself when it shouldn’t. The tone (delightfully shitty) never hits a stride; I still can’t tell you if Barbarella is so bad it’s good or if it’s so bad it’s just bad.
In the distant future, (astronaut?) Barbarella (Fonda) is assigned by the Earth’s president to locate and return Doctor Durand Durand from the uncharted Tau Ceti region. Durand Durand, see, created a weapon known as the Positronic Ray, which is deadly enough to cause Earthly leaders to fear extinction if it were to fall into the wrong hands.
Barbarella crash lands onto Tau Ceti’s 16th planet, and, from there, embarks on an adventure that could only be found in a film like this, romancing a blind angel (John Phillip Law) and facing foes such as razor-toothed dolls, one-eyed nymphos, bloodthirsty canaries, aqueous personifications of evil, and Orgasmitrons.
Everything here's delivered with a straight face: there’s not a suggestion that anyone on the set realized most people aren’t just going to nod along when Barbarella is almost murdered by a crazed Orgasmitron.
In one interview, Fonda spoke about her character as if she were going for a particularly thoughtful characterization. But with her newscaster voice and famously sexy body, she’s the odd man out, maybe even the most outré thing in the film. She falls over with slow-motion, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up! deliberation; when she hits the ground, it’s like she’s climaxing for the camera. She says her lines like she knows they’re bad, and sometimes even seems to be pretending that she’s Brigitte Bardot and not The Respected Actress Jane Fucking Fonda. Who can blame her? What actress can really take things seriously when they have to perform a (non-erotic, supremely eccentric) zero-gravity striptease in a shag-carpeted spaceship (?) in the opening scene alone?
I could give Barbarella an A for being awful, but what kind of critic would I be if I rewarded a film for failing at everything it tries? I’ll settle for a D+, but it’s not a D+ in the same category as other flops. It’s an entertaining failure, like a train wreck in the process of being stopped by Tobey Maguire in his Spidey suit. And look on the positive side: a very successful ‘80s band was named after its villain, so it can’t all be bad. D+